The End of Liberty in Egypt

The following piece was written on Dec. 27, 2013.

According to today’s news in the Times, Egypt’s military has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood. This follows the Algeria pattern of counterrevolution. The military junta has now criminalized dissent, following months of massacres of dissidents and protestors by the security forces. Activists related to the Brotherhood are persecuted and imprisoned by the hundreds or thousands.

The Brotherhoods assets have been seized by the state as well. The situation of state-deployed terror is turning into a society-wide witch hunt, with individuals trying to distance themselves from anything Brotherhood lest they become objects of state persecution as well.

This is all being done in the name of “antiterrorism,” and treaty agreements under the rubric of “war on terror” are being used in connection with foreign states not to shelter “terrorists.” We see as clearly as ever that the term terrorism is merely a proxy for internal opposition and state enemies. From today’s Times:

The defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, set the official tone, vowing to eradicate those who try to harm Egypt from “the face of the Earth,” according to a statement released by the military.

“Don’t let these treacherous terrorist incidents affect you or your spirits,” he said, speaking of recent bombings by militants for which the government has blamed the Brotherhood. “We’re on the side of pronounced righteousness.”

The police announced the first arrests under the terror designation, charging 16 Brotherhood supporters in Sharqiya Province with belonging to a terrorist group. That charge carries a five-year prison sentence, the Interior Ministry said, but leaders of the Brotherhood potentially face execution.

This can be seen as a direct attack on civil society and political dissent in Egypt, especially considering that the Brotherhood has long served as a major source of social services. Again from today’s Times:

One of the operations caught in the whipsaw was the Islamic Medical Association, a network of hospitals founded by a Brotherhood leader in the 1970s that now serves more than two million patients a year, mostly in poor neighborhoods.

At two of the network’s hospitals in Cairo, most of the local residents waiting for treatment on Thursday said they did not belong to the Brotherhood and did not regard the facilities as part of the movement’s operations. Instead, they saw clean, efficient and affordable alternatives to the government’s poorly managed hospitals.

Right-wing and liberal Egyptian and American supporters of the anti-Morsi coup should be shamed by the open display of what was obvious from the start: the ruthless authoritarianism of the junta, and the determination to crush all democratic tendencies in the country.

This is the current phase of the “Arab spring,” which has now become a nightmare of counterrevolution. These waves and cycles are typical of struggles over state power. We have seen them play out across the globe in recent decades, for example in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina) and Africa (Algeria, Angola, South Africa). The situation is often very ugly before it resembles anything decent. Either state power is too concentrated; state terror is too effective; the state is supported and armed by foreign powers; the mechanisms of democratic organization are not powerful enough; individuals are isolated or terrorized and unwilling to put themselves at risk in opposing state power.

The US, sadly (but predictably), has been squarely on the wrong side of this situation. It has supported the coup, just as it supported the Mubarak dictatorship before Egypt’s democratic turn.

Shortly before Mubarak’s ouster, Hilary Clinton publicly described the dictator and his wife as “friends of the family”. The US supported Mubarak’s police state and torture regime until the last second with military aid and diplomatic support (more than $39 billion over three decades), only reversing their position once the reversal of power had become inevitable. When Morsi won elections that were reasonably free and fair, the first in Egypt’s history, the US moved quickly to secure the Brotherhood as a reliable partner. In this, the US was successful.

The Brotherhood, an impressive force of real grassroots activism and economic justice in Egypt, also embodies conservative tendencies in Egyptian society. During the anti-Mubarak revolution, the Brotherhood took a back seat role, leaving it to secular activists to do the work during the riskiest period of protest and revolt. It was only after the Mubarak regime started to falter that the Brotherhood decided it was safe to join forces with the (secular) Tahrir Square movement.

After the regime fell, the Brotherhood was by far the best organized and largest force on the ground. It pushed for quick elections, from which it benefited tremendously, since emergent groups, such as those within the original Tahrir movement, did not have time to organize and establish themselves throughout the country.

The Brotherhood proved a reliable partner to the US in terms of trade and treaty. Defense contracts continued; defense treaties (notably with Israel) would be honored (even though, it should be pointed out, treaties and agreements signed by dictators without the consent of the people have no legitimacy once the people are in power through a democratic government).

But the Brotherhood was a partner of last resort. A far more reliable partner was the military establishment. Given time to recover from the anti-Mubarak purges, which did not go very deep, the clientelist military establishment organized an effective coup. The PR aspect of this coup was impressive, with major efforts made to sell it–both to the domestic and international audience–as a “democratic” coup (a line repeated consistently by US politicians). Morsi was ousted, and many were describing the military take-over as representing “the will of the people,” even though the people had just voted Morsi into democratic office, and he had not yet served out his term. Some pointed out the very real authoritarian tendencies in Morsi’s governing, including the deeply flawed constitutional system and attempts to consolidate executive power over the judiciary. But as real as these threats were, such commentators failed, appallingly, to recognize the far greater threats implicit in a military take-over, the raw exercise of extra-constitutional power, consolidating control over the country’s affairs into the hands of military businessmen. This predictably led to a purge of the political opposition as “terrorists,” with hundreds of Brotherhood protestors slaughtered in the streets, and a criminalization of dissent. Egypt is now a far less free place than it was under Morsi’s rule, and the people’s ability to influence events has taken a huge step backward.

If the US wanted to support democracy and freedom in the region, it would a) immediately suspend all forms of military and economic aid to Egypt, contingent on an urgent return to democratic power; b) publicly denounce military rule in Egypt; c) use the UN Security Council to push for economic isolation of the clientelist deep state; d) support and fund democratic organization in Egypt.

Instead of doing these things, the US is presently offering tacit and explicit support for the military junta. It has still refused to call the takeover a “coup,” since there are US laws (passed by Congress) that prohibit US support for any coup. By refusing to use that label, the State Department is offering the excuse that it can keep its options open. This is an insult to our public’s intelligence and to the laws passed by our Congress, an arrogance of executive power and disrespect for democratic rule at home.

The Arab Spring movements will continue to play out in the years ahead, with waves of advances and setbacks. Demand for democratic rule is high, and people in the region have increasingly shown their willingness to take risks to bring the state under some modicum of democratic control. Presently, authoritarian state power has the upper hand, and is consolidating control. However, there are reasons to believe this is a long game that will continue to play out dramatically and unpredictably in the months and years to come. Now more than ever before, after having tasted their own power and the possibilities of its use, the peoples of the region will not be content to leave state power in the hands of autocrats and torture regimes. US citizens should do what they can to pressure and influence their government to denounce all forms of authoritarian practice and, far more important than rhetoric alone, to refuse–at the policy level–to be materially complicit in supporting authoritarian regimes.

****

Addendum to embedded  links above:

Kerry’s remarks after military coup. Aug. 2013. From the New York Times:

Secretary of State John Kerry offered an unexpected lift to Egypt’s military leaders on Thursday, saying they had been “restoring democracy” when they deposed the country’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3 after mass demonstrations against his rule.

“The military was asked to intervene by millions and millions of people” who feared the country would descend into chaos, Mr. Kerry said during a visit to Pakistan, a country that has seen four military coups since the 1950s. . . .

His comments echoed those of Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who has said that he repeatedly warned Mr. Morsi to change course and that he was carrying out the people’s will by deposing him. Mr. Kerry’s blunt comments represented the strongest endorsement yet by the United States of the military intervention, which the Obama administration has refused to call a coup.

Using that term would require the United States to suspend its annual $1.5 billion aid package, a move that American officials assert would further destabilize Egypt. Instead, the administration has found a way to avoid the question altogether, deciding last week that it was not legally required to determine whether the military had engineered a coup or not.

White House continued support of aid to the military junta. October 2013. From the Washington Post:

The Obama administration asked Congress on Tuesday to find a legislative work-around that would keep Washington’s aid to Egypt flowing, calling the assistance crucial to U.S. interests in the region.

Although the administration has refrained from calling the July 3 ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a coup, it has begun negotiating with congressional appropriators over aid in recent weeks in light of a U.S. law that bars Washington from providing funds to governments that came to power through force.

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